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24 April 2024

The biggest threat to freedom in the West is liberalism itself

Progressives everywhere are deploying the law to attack free speech. It is a bid for unchecked power that is galvanising the right.

By John Gray

The attempted shutdown of the National Conservatism Conference by police in Brussels made for a diverting spectacle. Staged at the centre of the European project, the flagrant attack on free speech and association was a piquant commentary on the bien pensant fancy that the European Union is redeeming the dark continent and refounding it on the basis of liberal values.

The local mayor who authorised the assault declared that “the far right” was not welcome in the city. Whether the conference can be described in these terms is questionable, but as he made the announcement parties that are undoubtedly from the far right were preparing to become a deciding force in the European Parliament after the elections in June. The meeting was resumed after the ban was condemned by the Belgian prime minister and overturned by the country’s top administrative court.

Yet this was not the only example of creeping authoritarianism. In a separate incident, the former Greek finance minister, left-wing political theorist and pro-Palestine speaker Yanis Varoufakis was prohibited from entering German territory and connecting with public meetings in Germany by video link. Throughout these episodes, the EU was silent.

Suspending freedom of expression for the sake of liberal values may seem a paradox, but it is not illogical. For latter-day hyper-liberals, free speech is useful only so long as it advances a progressive project. Confronted by criticism, they respond by trying to suppress debate. An ever-widening category of “hate speech” is deployed against any discourse deemed offensive or a risk to public safety.

The canonical liberal John Stuart Mill is often invoked against censorship of this sort, and it is true that in On Liberty (1859) he argued that free speech must include the freedom to cause offence. But when, in the same essay, he argued that the value of freedom lay in collective well-being or utility, he specified that “it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being”. Free speech had little value if it served reactionary ends.

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Like many other 19th-century liberals, Mill feared the rise of democratic government because he believed it meant empowering an ignorant and tyrannical majority. Time and again, he vilified the torpid masses who were content with traditional ways of living.

At present, however, it is the masses that are preserving liberal freedoms. Nicola Sturgeon’s dominance of Scottish politics came to an abrupt end with gender self-ID, which is rejected by most voters because it undermines the liberty of women to have their own safe spaces. The resounding defeat of Leo Varadkar’s referenda on family life has stalled and possibly stymied Ireland’s draconian hate speech bill. Both leaders were toppled by resistance to the imposition of progressive values on majorities that do not share them. The most effective defence against tyranny is not an ever multiplying panoply of rights, which activist judges interpret in accordance with the ruling ideology, but a functioning democracy.

The fundamental threat to freedom in the West comes not from Marxism, postmodernism or even the increasing sway of autocratic regimes in boardrooms and universities, but from within liberalism. From being an empirical philosophy, open in principle to learning from experience, it has become a self-referential world-view that screens out forbidden truths. With the closing of the liberal mind, “critical thinking” has become the recitation of a secular catechism, an exercise designed to banish other modes of thought.

At bottom, the liberal assault on free speech is a bid for unchecked power. By shifting the locus of decision from democratic deliberation to legal procedures, progressives aim to insulate their cultish programmes from contestation and accountability. The politicisation of law and the hollowing out of politics go hand in hand.

The high point of this strategy may have been the ruling earlier this month by the Council of Europe’s Strasbourg Court that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) mandates a right to protection from the adverse effects of global warming. Unsurprisingly, the social and economic costs of “climate justice” were excluded from consideration. The ruling can only strengthen the case for the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR and the Council of Europe, already compelling after decades of judicial overreach. It is telling that, less than a fortnight after the court issued its judgment, the Scottish government abandoned its 2030 net zero target.

There is a lesson here for Labour. Behind the conservative public image his advisers have cultivated for campaigning purposes, Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet seem curiously confident that history is on the side of progressives like themselves. The little we know of what they plan to do in office involves a further devolution of authority to institutions led by technocrats and lawyers. Behind the scenes, Tony Blair is promoting a model of governance in which democracy figures as an inconvenient afterthought.

The persisting influence of hyper-liberal extremism in professedly centrist parties invites a dangerous blowback. The spectres of Donald Trump returning to the White House in 2025 and Marine Le Pen entering the Élysée Palace in 2027 loom. Politics is reasserting its primacy, while Labour marches resolutely into the past.  

[See also: Dune: Part Two depicts a world of ceaseless struggle – like our own]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger